Welcome to WritersInk's latest help topic: ALLEGORY Our editorials and help topics will discuss issues which affect writers generally, as well as dA Lit specifically. All of which is to help you become a better writer.
What is Allegory?
Let’s look at what allegory means. Dictionary.com tells us that it is a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.
But what does this mean? Essentially, allegory is the telling of two stories in one. There is a an obvious “basic story”, but also a “deeper meaning”, a secondary story, sometimes referred to as “subtext”, or “underlying commentary”.
Symbolism is often a key feature, where a particular object, colour, person, or place can be used to represent a key element in the story. A simple example of this is in Star Wars where Luke wears light colours and Darth Vader wears dark colours to symbolise good versus evil.
Another good point to note is that allegory need not always be obvious, and the underlying commentary doesn’t have to be directly related to the basic story, in fact it can even contradict it. An example of this is George Orwell’s 1984, in which the story seeks to illustrate and condemn the oppression of communism and totalitarianism, yet the story ends with the protagonist having embraced this regime.
Allegory aims to tell a story that is entertaining and memorable, like any other tale, but to also use symbols to teach its reader something deeper; a lesson or skill about life.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
One of the most well-known examples of the use of allegory is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. There are a number of renditions of the story online which you can look up if you are not already familiar with the tale. You can also watch this animated version below.
So what is this story trying to tell us? First let’s look at the basic story, the surface tale that we are presented with.
The Allegory of the Cave is a story about a group of people who have lived their entire lives in a cave, unable to see what is around them. One of the prisoners is then released and taken outside to view the world beyond. Although he is first stunned by this revelation that the world he knew was incorrect, he comes to accept it, and goes back to the cave to tell the others of his discovery. Having not seen what he has seen, the other prisoners do not believe the man, and think instead that he has either gone mad or is lying to them. They come to the conclusion that leaving the cave is a bad thing, as it only leads to corruption or insanity.
This is a rather simple tale, but now let’s look at the deeper meaning behind those words.
The people in the cave are symbolic of humanity, and the cave itself of humanity’s narrow view of the world, dictated by what is immediately in front of us. The people are the unenlightened masses, who see only that which is before them, and accept it as reality. The freed prisoner symbolises the “enlightened philosopher” who has journeyed further, and thus seen more, than the people left behind. In this instance, the term “philosopher” can apply to any free-thinking individual who breaks away from society’s accepted worldview.
The real crux comes when the philosopher decides to return and share his knowledge. The reaction of the cave people is representative of the tendency of humanity to reject that which they cannot immediately understand or explain, or which challenges the accepted worldview. While one person was able to pull away and see things differently, society as a whole clings to that which is safe and proven, choosing to discard or destroy anything which challenges the security of that belief or system.
Plato used this story as a way of illustrating one of humanity’s shortcomings; their unwillingness to accept ideas which bring into question the foundations of society. But it also illustrates one of humanity’s strengths, the ability of an individual to rise up above their peers and discover new information and ideas.
Many people think that allegory is a difficult, or rarely used literary tool, but it isn’t. In fact, you may be far more familiar with the use of allegory than you realised. You were probably first introduced to this literary form as a child, when you read stories, or watched movies, based on fairy tales.
Fairy tales were designed as a way to teach people important lessons. When a lot of people couldn’t read or write, they would gather around a story teller, who would recount various fables. The fantastical nature of these stories made them memorable, and so they were passed on. However, their true purpose was not just to entertain, but to instruct. Although initially intended for adults, fairy tales evolved as a colourful means of passing important life lessons onto children. Below are a few well-known tales and their deeper meanings.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf - Don’t tell lies, otherwise when you tell the truth no one will believe you.
The Emperor’s New Clothes - Saying things you don’t believe, simply to fit in or appease someone, will only make you look like a fool.
The Gingerbread Man - No matter how fast or clever you are, there may be someone who is faster and cleverer, and there can be only one winner.
Little Red Hen - In order to share in the rewards, you have to do the hard labour first.
The Beauty and the Beast - Do not judge people by appearances, it is a person’s inner beauty that really matters.
Please note, that all fairy tales have multiple renditions, and are often adapted to suit certain eras or audiences. The above is only one interpretation of each of the tales, there are many others.
Think of a fairy tale, fable, or other children’s story (even a movie), and try to guess at the subtext. You can even offer a different interpretation of one of the tales listed above.
Leave a comment below with the story you have picked and what you think its deeper meaning is.
Remember! There are no wrong answers. A story’s lesson is only as good as your understanding of it, so any and all interpretations are welcome.
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It would be a rather morally and philosophically dry story if there was no allegory. In my journal [Art of Philosophers] I also explained that sometimes authors do not plan allegories in the story because there is no need to.
Although people would argue it, J.R.R. Tolkien's works are very often perceived as allegories of the industrial revolution and the corruption of man over nature. Tolkien himself (respectfully) stated he had never made any intent of this and he never saw his works as allegory. But like anything else, he stood back and let people view his work as they saw fit.
Allegory does not necessarily have to be intentional, and in my opinion it is incredibly hard to not have something. But this contest has been crafted with that in mind.
Should we, as readers and/or writers, differentiate between strong, intentional allegory, and the kind of allegory that seems to be other people reading into the work and coming up with their own ideas (such as the Tolkien example)?
Not beyond distinguishing between intent and accident. People pestered Tolkien a lot about his supposedly profound allegories, and he'd have not likely made a fuss of it had people not continuously questioned him on it.
It is important that we keep in mind when an authors means to place allegory (and whether our perceptions of that allegory are the only possible interpretation) and when they don't.
Fairy tales are good examples, and although most aren't direct allegories, they are dripping with symbolism. For example, the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is most certainly not a literal wolf. I find Hansel and Gretel to be particularly disturbing, seeing as the witch and the stepmother were metaphorically the same person, at least in my interpretation. The abuse those kids went through was much deeper than abandonment.
(Also, Thomas Foster's book "How to Read Literature like a Professor" is an excellent tool for analyzing literature without losing the fun of reading.)
H.G. Wells, H.G. Wells, H.G. Wells! I've always thought his sci fi stands apart from other sci fi because of it's fable like narrative style. For example, The Time Machine's scenario is about a world where class differences are so rampant that the lower class and upper class have evolved into different species. The story makes it obvious that Wells sees this scenario as a very negative thing and class difference as therefore a prominent problem in his society that needed attention and solution. Pretty much all of his novels work with allegory to target a political, social, or personal conflict.